Thursday, November 12, 2015

Zombies, Mentor Texts, & Procrastination

I can tell it's getting close to the end of the semester when I find myself avoiding grading by making plans for next semester. Yes, it's wise to plan ahead. But I know that my "advance planning" is often a procrastination strategy. 

My current procrastinating planning takes the form of attending a book study group where we are reading the book Writing with Mentors: How to Reach Every Writer in the room Using Current, Engaging, Mentor Texts by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O'Dell. 

According to Marchetti and O'Dell: Mentor texts are model pieces of writing - or excerpts of writing - by established authors that can inspire students and teach them how to write. . . . Mentor texts enable student writers to become connected to the dynamic world of professional writers. Mentor texts enable independence as, over time, students are able to find and use inspiration and craft elements found in the sentences and pages of their favorite writers. Mentor texts enable complete creativity and individuality to emerge in student writing and instruction. (3) 


So what does this have to do with zombies? The first assignment in our study group is to consider what we have read or are reading that might make a good mentor text, examining our own reading habits to see which texts demonstrate writing craft worth learning. I've chosen my summer read, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks. 

Brooks' novel is an alternative history that traces a chronology of the zombie crisis, from the inception of the plague through the zombie wars to a few years after peace was declared. The novel consists of interviews of dozens of characters from all around the world, ranging from military personnel, medical experts, politicians, religious leaders to everyday folks. 

The conceit that ties the individual stories together is the narrator, a journalist who interviewed hundreds of people for an official document for an international commission on the zombie war. But the commission believed that the oral interviews were too expressive, too emotional for the purposes of the report. So the narrator “re-purposed’ his interviews to provide a more personal, subjective narrative counterpart to the objective stance he had to employ for the official report. 

The narrator’s discussion of having to excise the narratives out of the official report would make an awesome compare and contrast mini-mentor text. And it would be a cool way to amplify the difference between an informative text (the official document) and expressive texts (the narratives). Using World War Z would be a cool supplement to activities I use to distinguish between informative and expressive. Or even between objective and subjective reportage. 

But the the main reason I immediately thought of this book is because I teach a unit on story telling and monologues. The book, basically a collection of monologues, features speakers with distinctive voices, something I’d like students to learn how to create. Since the novel's "monologists" come from all walks of life, I can use them to illustrate how story tellers establish their authentic voices by making specific word choice and through sentence length, patterns, and variety.

I’ll especially want to use those vignettes where the monologists effectively makes a point, be it an explicit or implicit assertion. I can use those monologues to demonstrate how speakers support their claims with vivid description coupled and apt choices of texts structures (cause.effect, comparison/contrast, sequence, or problem/solution). We might even be able to see how strong description and wise structural choices obviate the need for explicitly stated assertions. 

I'm jazzed about figuring out how to weave snippets of zombie novel into my unit on story telling. I've got the book right next to me, right on top of a pile of papers I should be grading and next to my copy of Writing with Mentors. Wonder what I'll attend to first: grading, finish reading this week's reading assignment for the study group, or skimming through my favorite stories in World War Z (insert witty pun about "brains" here).